Box Office India (BOI): Miss Lovely did the rounds of many festivals last year. What kind of reception did it receive?
Niharika Singh: It was a very small film and we never expected it to travel to Cannes. So we were really happy because it was one of our first films. Amazingly, each one of us came from a different background. Anil (George) has a theatre background in Delhi; Nawaz (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is from NSD and had done some small roles in films, mainly character roles; I had participated in the Miss India contest and didn’t know much about the film world; and our director Ashim Ahluwalia had made documentary films. Apart from us, I don’t think anyone else had any faith in the film.
At Cannes, filmmakers were surprised that a film like this had come out of India as the West has a preconceived idea of Bollywood films. This was neither an art-house film nor a typical Bollywood film. It is like a hybrid as Ashim Ahluwalia is different from the mould. He wanted to break all the myths we have with this film.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui: When the film was first screened at Cannes, we received a very positive response. Everyone said it didn’t look like a typical Indian movie and that it looked like European cinema. I think this film breaks a lot of moulds in Hindi cinema, structure-wise, story and narration-wise. Ashim has a very unique way of story-telling. Both Gangs Of Wasseypur and Miss Lovely received the same acclaim at Cannes, and it was only after the screening at Cannes that they began taking an interest in Indian films. The appreciation that we got for Miss Lovely at Cannes was phenomenal but unfortunately post Cannes, the film’s popularity in India was underrated.
Anil George (AG): When I got the script, I was perplexed. My character had to cuss a lot. Associate producer Sanjay (Shah) booked a hall for me to audition. I wondered why I was being given so much importance as this had never happened to me before. I said, ‘I don’t have the time.’ And Sanjay said, ‘I will come to your place for the audition.’ I wondered why they were also sending me an air ticket to Mumbai. I was hoping it was not a C-grade film!
When I came for the auditions and bumped into Nawaz, I was reassured that he had turned up for the auditions too. To date, when I think about the story and the way it was written, I feel it was very impressive. Its reception at Cannes was overwhelming. I had never thought I would visit France, let alone walk the red carpet at the festival.
Niharika: No, I never felt that way. It happened on Valentine’s Day, and I told my casting director that if he turned up late and ruined Valentine’s Day for me, he had better show up with flowers! He arrived at my place at 9 pm with flowers! I loved the script, which read like an interesting novel. The screenplay was brilliant. The characters were amazing and I would have played any character in the film.
The director was a little confused about why I was so eager to do the film. He said everyone he had approached thought it was a C-grade film. So Ashim kept asking me whether I had understood the character and was I sure I was OK with it. I said, I understood it but was wondering how we would make the film. So he sent me a DVD of John & Jane, his previous film that went to the Toronto Film Festival. I watched the film and had no doubt that he was a great filmmaker.
BOI: Nawaz, this was your first full-length lead role. How did you come on board?
Nawazuddin: Length was not an issue because I was not getting any roles from TV any more. Paresh Rawal had recommended me because I had worked in a film with him which was directed by Nandita Das. So I auditioned for this character Sonu Duggal and they called me for a narration the next day. After the narration, I felt very familiar with that world because I had experienced the world of C-grade filmmakers and actors. I was, like, how could this guy be so spot-on about that world? Ashim told me he wanted to make a documentary on this subject and had researched it thoroughly. He said he had lived with these people during his research and had cast actors who are actually part of that C-grade film world. Many of them were co-strugglers like me. In fact, some of them were getting work simply because of the way they looked, not because they had to act.
The challenge for me in Miss Lovely was I had to unlearn all the acting skills I knew because I had to match their scale. It should not look like I was acting. It was an interesting challenge. It was Ashim who taught me to unlearn things.
Niharika: I think frustration is part of every creative field. Even if you’re working in a bank or the corporate sector and you don’t get an increment or promotions on time, you feel frustrated.
I started modeling; I won the Miss India Earth pageant; then I did a few films. So everything was happening very quickly and I was very happy because there was so much happening in my life. It, kind of, made me overconfident that things were falling into place so well. But this was followed by a phase when everything came to a standstill. Films I had shot were not releasing, things were not working out. I don’t know whether to call it frustration but it was definitely a learning phase. Failure teaches you a lot. I learnt a lot of lessons I wouldn’t have if success was mine from the start.
BOI: Nawazuddin, was the delay frustrating for you too?
Nawazuddin: I was a struggler then and merely getting some screen space was important rather than wondering when the film would release. Uss time kaam milna badi baat thi, release hogi yah nahi tab tak woh chinta nahi thi. But more than the actual release, I wondered whether the film would shape up the way Ashim had narrated it to me. When he narrated the script, I noticed many small locations, a lot of detailing and a world that was always dark. Once I started working with him, I realised he is a talented director and will bring that detailing to the screen too.
Niharika: Ashim is an experimental filmmaker and doesn’t make films for money or for acclaim. When he started to make this film, he was interested in this C-grade space. Since C-grade films have been around in the Hindi film industry for a long time, he decided to make a documentary and researched it thoroughly. But when he made the film, he decided to send it to festivals and it drew a tremendous response. It was picked up by distributors from France and many other territories and now it is about to release globally. Since Ashim make films for himself, I don’t think he gets frustrated if it does not release as he has been a documentary filmmaker.
Nawazuddin: I don’t agree with Niharika that a director makes a film for himself. Since he casts actors in it, it is his responsibility to see that the film releases. It’s very important for any director to show his film to as wide an audience as possible.
For example, this film might not affect me a whole lot but it is very important for Niharika and Anil because it will showcase their work. So you can’t say ‘I don’t care whether my film gets a release or not’, especially when it is a film like this one. If you look at the kind of films that are creating records at the box office, no one remembers them once they are out of cinemas. But Miss Lovely has a whole new world to talk about. You send your films to festivals so that a wider audience watches them. This is the right time to release a film like Miss Lovely as today, content is king.
Niharika: I want to add that I am indeed happy that our film is getting a proper release. People are used to films which start with ‘once upon a time…’ and end with ‘happily ever after’. But I also believe that this film is for a niche audience. Yeh film aapko jhanjhod degi. People who are interested in watching new-age films will definitely watch it.
AG: When our film was screened at Cannes, the international media and filmmakers were taken aback by the kind of film Miss Lovely was and they wanted to know if our own Indian audience would accept the film or not. I believe if we don’t offer unconventional genres to our audience, how would we know if they like them or not? But I must say that while we were making the film, we did not have any preconceived notions about whether or not our audience would watch the film. It is entirely possible that people who love big-budget films with big stars will also enjoy Miss Lovely. We will never find out how diverse our audience is unless we give them a mix of genres.
Nawazuddin: (Cuts in) That was one battle Ashim had on his hands for a year. Still, there are only a few cuts, thanks to Ashim and our Censor Board. We were expecting more but Ashim took a stand and didn’t budge.
Niharika: There is speculation that the film has 157 cuts but that is not true. The Censor Board suggested 157 cuts but Ashim opposed it and that struggle lasted a year or so. In fact, that’s why it took us about a year to release the film.
BOI: Nawaz, your films have travelled to many festivals. Do foreign filmmakers recognise you now?
Nawazuddin: International attention is very new to our industry and that is due to a handful of films that has broken the formula. The Lunchbox is one such film that has been very successful internationally. It is one of the very few Hindi films that has appealed to the universal market and generated impressive returns in the overseas market. Miss Lovely and Gangs Of Wasseypur created a base for our films to reach out to a wider audience, who can see that our films are more than just singing and dancing.
Nawazuddin: There have been offers and there are always people who want to cast you but I don’t want to do a film only because they need an Indian actor for a scene or two. I have my own identity and I have my own thoughts about the kind of films I want to do. So I will not sign a Hollywood film just for the sake of it. Our own industry is booming right now and we are making some great films. I don’t think I need to go to other platforms for work.
BOI: Niharika, there are some ‘bold’ scenes in the film. Were you comfortable doing them?
Niharika: This is not a C-grade film; the C-grade film industry is only the backdrop of the story. Why is everything in our industry standardised and shown to the audience? If the film is based on an NRI woman, an actress wouldn’t think twice about playing the part. So why are C-grade films, which are part of our cinematic history, trashed so much? You could call it an ‘ugly truth’ but you cannot ignore the fact that they are a part of our cinematic history.
When we have a filmmaker who has researched these films and takes characters from that world to stitch together a story which is beautifully told, why would I flinch?
I don’t feel the need to play safe and always look for something that could be interesting. Glamorous and desirable roles can also be hollow. After Cannes, I have been offered roles like these but I found them boring.